Social, mental and emotional health in children and young people – some thoughts…

Over the years, my experience of working in the field of special education has given me insight into the many possible factors that can affect children’s development. I have had the privilege of supporting children with social, mental and emotional health difficulties and their families. My patience and good sense of humour helped to establish good relationships with them and enabled me to implement learning strategies to support their individual educational needs to access the curriculum more effectively. Although working with these children was demanding and challenging it was also very rewarding seeing how they became more confident and made progress.

Supporting anxious and concerned parents is an integral part of re-engaging children into a learning environment and thereby reduces the potential for negative behaviour. Many children at risk become alienated from school because of poor parental experiences and this is continued when the children become parents themselves. I believe that a holistic and humanistic approach is therefore needed to understand and support children and young people with their challenging behaviour. This approach requires us to consider all the particular risk factors for each individual child. This was illustrated when I was once confronted with an angry pupil in a classroom situation with a kitchen knife in his bag, which he was threatening to use. I was able to manage this difficult situation by remaining calm, using my experience and theoretical knowledge of children to successfully defuse the situation.  Therefore forming positive relationships and being a good role model is essential when working to gain trust with children whose life experiences have made them wary of establishment figures. As Furedi (2009) has argued, the therapeutic turn in education is based on the premise that attending to the emotional management of people is logically prior to educating them. The idea that young people are unable to learn unless they are happy and possess confidence represents a clear statement of the ethos of therapeutic education: psychology first, education later.

I have also been fortunate enough to work in The Gambia in various educational settings which enabled me to experience not only different ways of teaching and learning but also the importance of community responsibility regarding the education of their children. This made me realise that if children are to grow up to become full members of the community to work and live together without fear, there needs to be effective services for all, irrespective of race, creed, culture or disability. Effective and targeted services therefore are not an optional extra; they are an essential requirement of a civilised society. The current government interest towards mental health provision in children is therefore long overdue. Her Royal Highness The Duchess of Cambridge who is currently highlighting this was quoted as saying that many children are struggling to cope with the impact of issues such as bullying, bereavement, family breakdown and more, which for some young people can lead to depression anxiety, addiction and self-harm if they do not get appropriate support. Stigma around mental health means that many children do not get the help they so badly need, which needs to change.  “Through Place2Be I have seen the benefits of offering children support for their mental health in the safety of the school environment. Both William and I sincerely believe that early action can prevent problems in childhood from turning into larger ones later in life.” Place2Be.org.uk (2016).

Teaching within the special education field of challenging behaviour has given me the opportunity to share my own passion and personal experience with students, this sharing both enriches teaching and learning through thought-provoking discussions as part of the fascinating journey through the complex area of special educational needs and disability.

 

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What is the Dilemma of Difference?

The term the Dilemma of Difference has often been used to describe the quandary that young people with a Special Educational Need or Disability (SEND) and their families face as they go through school. The dilemma is in whether we give that young person a diagnosis or label so that they can benefit from a particular support or resource, or whether we treat them just like other people so that they do not feel ‘different’ but are included in society like everyone else. In some cases this may feel like a ridiculous discussion when the hearing impaired student needs a signer, or the child with a physical impairment needs a wheelchair. Indeed, the very idea of a ‘dilemma’ sounds like something an ableist society has constructed in a paradigm that sees difference as ‘other’, something to be pitied or causing stigma. Don’t we just have to get over that way of thinking?

Or maybe it could also be argued that in some cases our desire as teachers to pathologise a child’s behaviour or learning differences has created a very medicalised model of viewing disability – a model where the teacher is the expert and the child has a problem that needs fixing.  A model where the child is viewed as a victim of personal tragedy, waiting to be saved by the professionals. 

The new SEND Legislation under the Children and Families Act 2014 is trying to move us away from having these arguments and get us to focus on where it is each individual child or young person wants to be. Rather than arguing about labels, mainstream or special school, or how much time a teaching assistant spends with you, the legislation is urging us to look at what it is the young person and their family want to see in their lives and how the professionals can help them to achieve it.  What job can they see themselves doing in the future? Where do they want to live?  Who do they want to hang out with? It is no longer the job of the teacher or psychologist to set the goals for each young person; these need to be set by the young person themselves with the support of their family.  As section 9 of the new Code of Practice tells us, children and parents are now ‘at the heart of the process’. Of course this is quite a culture change for families too. Now they have to make decisions about the future, and think about what they want the support to achieve rather than being an end in itself.

This won’t happen over night and a lot of planning, support and training for both professionals and families has been going on for the past few years across England. But it has to be a step in the right direction.  At last we aren’t just worrying about what the ‘problem’ is but focusing on the solution and how we’re going to get there.